Knowledge Management (KM) and Social Computing – are they the same?

‘Knowledge Management’ (KM) is a term that’s been bandied around since the mid 1990’s, with much debate as to what it actually means. The wikipedia definition is a reasonable starting point, but you still get the vociferous few who will take the literal meaning and argue that you can’t manage (tacit) knowledge, plus a confetti (I quite like that description) of academic papers that provide a forensic analysis of the ‘KM’ term. Fortunately, there are always two sides to every argument, and at least for me, the Dave Snowdon blog ‘Whence goeth KM’ provides a more balanced and reasoned discussion on the topic.

Anyway, one point which I trust won’t be in dispute is the fact that KM has spawned an entire industry – from academic dissertations on human cognition (how the brain thinks), to software vendors offering hierarchical and work flow-driven architectures as a panacea for everyone’s knowledge and information needs.

If things weren’t complicated enough, we now have a relatively new term to confuse all but the army of consultants who thrive on giving complicated labels to simple behaviours – ‘Social Computing’.

Now, in my mind, I can’t make a clear distinction between KM and Social Computing, except that KM is part of a broader framework that can exist independent of technology, and Social Computing is the application of KM through software tools and technology. But on reflection – I guess that is a clear distinction!

It seems that Social Computing has moved beyond the early hierarchical and work flow-driven systems and is providing a much flatter architecture with far more emphasis on peer-to-peer connectivity and disinter mediation of the web publishing process – i.e. everyone can be a publisher. Information and KM professionals are starting to become knowledge facilitators, and there is a surely an opportunity here for the re-invention of the traditional Librarian role – if only they would grasp it.

Social Commuting is going to have (already is having?) a disruptive effect on organisations that are slow to adapt to new technologies, where staff are getting more confident about using software services and applications that sit outside the corporate firewall. ICT departments are going to find this trend difficult to ignore, though I’ve already witnessed the Luddite trend in some organisations who’s initial reaction is just to lock down the firewall and prevent access to the facilities. Perversely, this is creating a growing community of hobbyists who are creating their own Social Computing environments (see Lgknowledge as a good example for the public sector) in their own time and space – away from the restrictions of the work environment.   

So, is Social Computing the next best thing since sliced bread? I believe it is. Social Computing can transform KM, shifting the emphasis from repositories and taxonomies, which are hard to build and maintain, to more intuitive, tacit knowledge sharing. Social Computing is becoming the 21st Century KM, moving it from an often too academic exercise, or imited by corporate (command and control driven) thinking,  into the real world of people sharing knowledge and expertise with each other naturally, without even thinking about it.  Pity we have to give it a label really!

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